Adam Johnson tells this story of love and identity inside an amazingly real-feeling North Korea, neither glossing over nor glorifying atrocities and human rights violations. Instead, he immerses the reader in a culture that feels upside down – where children clean chemical vats and adults disappear for days, conscripted off city streets to work in rice paddies; where parents teach their children that, even though sometimes you have to denounce each other publicly, you’re still holding hands inside; where a father and husband can be killed and replaced by a stranger overnight, and the family will barely acknowledge the change. Always, on every street and in every home, loudspeakers tell the “Dear Leader”-approved news and warn of imminent invasion by the decadent Americans. Disconnecting your loudspeaker is a serious offense; citizens are encouraged to rat out their neighbors. After all, something may be wrong with the speaker, and you wouldn’t want them to miss an emergency announcement.
This is a powerful, sad, and deeply affecting novel with moments of transcendent beauty. It reminds me of why I loved books in the first place.